Conservation groups file lawsuit to protect endangered warbler

Concerned by continuing decline of the cerulean warbler, five conservation groups, including some based in Western North Carolina, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Gale Norton calling for the bird’s protection.

The conservation groups want the cerulean warbler listed as a threatened species, triggering protection for the warbler’s habitat in national forests. More than two dozen conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five years ago to list the bird. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has largely ignored the petition, however.

Meanwhile, the rate of the bird’s decline appears to have quickened.

“We need to catch the cerulean in its rapid fall before it hits endangered status,” said Doug Ruley, senior attorney in the Asheville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit organization representing the groups. “There is no excuse for the agency to have stalled this long.”

To critics, the lawsuit is yet another example of environmentalists using the courts to manipulate legislation in their favor, but Tracy Davids, director of Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project in Asheville, said it is a necessary tool.

“It must be fully enforced by citizens like us when the government fails to do so,” said Davids. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren to be good stewards of the land and leave behind a legacy of protecting endangered species and the places they call home.”

In the U.S., the songbirds nest in the interior of contiguous forest tracts and need large areas of mature, undisturbed forest to reproduce successfully. The loss and fragmentation of these forests to logging, agricultural clearing, sprawl and other development are likely causes of the species’ dramatic decline.

The cerulean warbler population has dropped almost 82 percent in the United States over the last 40 years, making it the fastest declining warbler in the country. Known for its bright blue plumage and distinctive song, the cerulean breeds in the summer in eastern forests and migrates to South America for winter.

The cerulean’s winter habitat in the forests of the Andes Mountains and northern South America is being destroyed for the production of coffee beans and cocoa as demand for these products grows.

Greg Bucher, director of Bird Conservation with the National Audubon Society, said the bird has declined an average of 6 percent a year over the last eight years, a more rapid rate compared to an average decline of 4.3 percent a year from 1966 to 2004.

For two years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored the original petition. The Endangered Species Act requires Fish and Wildlife to respond to a petition within 90 days. Instead it took them two years. In their response, the agency concluded that the listing of the cerulean warbler may be warranted, after which it had 12 months to make a final decision.

But Fish and Wildlife again ignored the timeline and it has been two and a half years with no decision.

The conservation groups filing the suit — the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, Western North Carolina Alliance and Heartwood — represent almost 1 million members.

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